By Baby Tuckoo
I have a confession to make: I haven’t been the best son to my father. In fact, I’ve been downright awful.
One of the earliest memories I have from the very fringes of my sentience is that of my father blaring Bob Dylan through the house; it wasn’t so much a staple as it was THE staple. There was almost nothing else played in our home. The hi-fi was out of bounds for us as kids, perhaps this is where the animosity began for a music loving child; at any rate, as I’ve grown older, I find myself thinking “a man that had such a love for that woolly bastard Dylan can’t be such a bad person.”
And now, as I wander down the shadow-filled trajectory of my own life, experiencing the same heartbreaks, misery and tragedy that Dylan has consistently written of, I suddenly feel a closer bond to the old man; my dad that is, a man I refused to talk to for decades at a time. A man with so much love infused in him for Dylan, it can only suggest someone with a strong sense of what life is really about.
So you ask “What got me to thinking about all this?” Bob Dylan’s “The Changing of the Guards”, of course. One of my earliest of numerous Dylan memories was hearing this song ground out on the stereo and the chorus girls echoing Dylan’s every second line: “Sixteen Years!”
I’m going to run with the idea that the song is a description of the trajectory of Bob’s own turbulent life and career and almost an apology to his own muse for his abandonment of her in favour of glamour, fame and money.
The song starts with the united front of the Beats and Hippies – the “united banners” over a field and Dylan amidst it all, all of them soon to be divided by his music and the direction he suddenly takes. Street Legal (1978): Sixteen years exactly since his debut record was released, Bob Dylan (1962).
He steps from the shadows into the marketplace… he becomes a commodity (“merchants and thieves, hungry for power”), but the passion is still the same: “smelling sweet like the meadows where she was born” – metaphorical meadows of course, given his background of having grown up in a iron mining community in Hibbing, Minnesota.
“The cold-blooded moon!”
I can only assume that the captain he refers to in the 3rd verse is himself and the maid he sends his love to is this unnamed muse: “whose ebony face is beyond communication”. He still believes his love for “her” will be repaid; he’ll get back what he has lost.
“They shaved her head!”
…her head (the muse) is shaved and she is defiled as he is made powerless; turned into a touring monkey, grinding out the hits. He’s torn between money and its power and muscle (Jupiter) and love of art, poetry, music (Apollo). (Jupiter is the all powerful roman king of the gods, represented by thunderbolts and an eagle, while Apollo is the god of light and sun, truth and prophecy, healing, plague, music, poetry, and more). He sees his muse on the stairs with a black nightingale – representing song, and cannot help but follow or listen. He starts to makes changes.
Some sources I’ve read refer to palmistry with reference to the “Jupiter and Apollo” analogy in the song.
Apollo, the finger of the sun, is also the finger that indicates how creative you are. And much like the star that lights the world, this finger signifies how you will find your creativity. Apollo (ring) and Jupiter (pointer) fingers need to be equal. Such a relationship indicates a balance between talent and ambition. You might appreciate beauty and have style as a musician or actor, but you need to be able to have these two fingers in balance in order to manage the lifestyle.
If the ring finger is longer than your pointer finger – or reaches past the half-way point of the beginning of your middle (Saturn) fingernail, then your Apollo is considered long.
This might mean that your artistic element is evident. However, you might be inconsistent in temperament. You might have the desire to retreat into a fantasy world. You might push things to extremes. Still, it could be worse. In this mode you can still be productive, even if you’re difficult to live with.
“I stumbled to my feet!”
He starts to make a recovery. Critics have demolished his work previously. He is riding past them in the ditches, although the wounds are still fresh; and “with the stitches still mending”. Renegade priests and treacherous witches are handing out to all and perverting what he’d made for her, his muse alone.
“The palace of mirrors!”
He’s on an “endless road” now – touring and he returns to his room where he’s haunted by the memory of Sara. And here she (his muse) whispers to him – reminds him of times past, when it still mattered, when his art was everything to him.
“She wakes him up!”
She wakes him now that he’s freed himself – “near broken chains”; he makes the assertion that he “don’t need their organisation” and that he won’t be letting it happen again; ie. allow capitalist demands to overpower his art and his will, and the guards are now changing. The pen (song) is mightier than the sword (money). The song ends on a note of finding peace and tranquility following the fire and trials. This ending could also be interpreted as a spiritual meaning; being also just chronologically prior to Bob’s conversion to Christianity. But that’s a story for another day.
My own trials find themselves reflected in this world-weary hymn.
Having lost and experienced similar torment to Dylan some time in and around the “Desire” and “Street Legal” period, and with my heart now heavy, yet hoping to once more learn to love again; and battling indifference and criticism of one’s art; and finding it tough to tread the line between making art versus simply pleasing an audience, I find myself identifying with this song’s message more. I find myself thinking of my father and remembering him playing these songs to us; I think about how he must have these understandings built into him and find I am closer in mind to him than I had thought before.
So in a way this is an apology; an apology to a man, a father who I thought did not understand his son, and who I, in turn, turned from… I feel there is a changing of the guards coming for me as well.
Take a listen to a stripped down and simplified Patti Smith version:
In the cold, cold night a boy was birthed. A flash of white noise; nearby televisions sparked; then returned to normal. Viewer’s wrongly put it down to electrical storm interference. The boy entered the machine. He’s been trying to escape ever since.